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BWW Reviews: History Comes Alive in Musical Theatre West's Star-Spangled '1776'

History buffs aside, most people would probably cringe at the thought of sitting through what could be-on the surface-a boring, classroom-like history lesson disguised as a stage musical that runs more than two and a half hours long. It didn't help initial expectations that upon arriving at the opening night performance of Musical Theatre West's revival of '1776', the ticket usher warned entering patrons that the first act alone runs an hour and 45 minutes long!

But yet, almost immediately, those fearful first impressions wonderfully faded away as soon as the curtain rose to reveal a stage full of men, of varying shapes and sizes, dressed in impeccable 18th-Century period garb. That feeling of wonder and euphoria never once went away for the rest of the evening. What could have been a long, excruciating theatrical exercise, is instead a riveting, edge-of-your-seat drama with plenty of heart and soul and a generous amount of genuinely comical moments. Musical Theatre West's production of '1776' (with performances running through July 25) is unquestionably brilliant, intensely affecting, and deeply moving-from its rousing beginning to its glorious end. This is one thrilling stage experience that must be seen and heard, and is a fitting season finale to this regional theater's incredible 57th season.

The show's pedigree should have hinted at its brilliance. With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, the original 1969 Broadway production was nominated for five Tony® Awards and won three trophies, including Best Musical. It was also later adapted into a motion picture in 1972. Set mostly inside the proceedings of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, '1776' depicts the tumultuous back-and-forth debate between representatives from the original colonies on whether they should propose breaking ties with England and declare independency. The proposal is mainly spearheaded by Massachusetts representative John Adams (the excellent Steven Glaudini), who we learn is quite "disliked" by the other members of congress. His trusty cohort is none other than the infamous Benjamin Franklin (the hilarious Steve Vinovich), who later convinces Adams that the resolution for independence would be more welcomed for discussion if it was proposed to the congressional members by someone else. This, Franklin confirms to Adams, is a better solution because, yes, he is indeed "obnoxious and disliked." Franklin's first suggestion: Richard Henry Lee (played by former Phantom Davis Gaines), the charismatic gentleman from Virginia. Franklin and Adams implore Lee to go to his home state to ask the Virginia legislative body to authorize him with an independency resolution.

Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the continually argumentative Congress (sound familiar?), Adams turns to the letters he exchanges with his wife Abigail (gorgeously-voiced Tami Tappan Damiano) for comfort and summons her frequently in his imagination.

A month passes and it is now June of 1776. Lee returns to congress from Virginia with a formal resolution of independence, which proposes that the United Colonies sever its ties to Britain. John Dickinson (Andy Umberger) of Pennsylvania is adamantly opposed to independency, calling it an act of treason. John Hancock (Tom Shelton), the President of Congress calls for a vote for further discussion. Five of the colonies-New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Conneticut, Delaware and Virginia-vote to keep the talks moving. Five other colonies-Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia-vote to postpone the debate indefinitely (which even in today's Congress would mean it will be rendered a practically dead issue). New York's representative abstains "courteously" from the vote, which becomes a recurring gag in the entire show. Rum-loving Stephen Hopkins (Richard Gould, a convincing curmudgeon) breaks the tie and votes in favor of further debate. It's a good thing Hopkins did or else the show (and this very country) would have ended right then and there.

The arrival of Rev. John Witherspoon (Jon Powell) from the often-absent delegation of New Jersey complicates things; now the vote stands at six for independence and six against independence (with New York abstaining, of course). As the president of the Congress, Hancock is reminded by Adams that he must exercise his ability to break ties. To counter this, Dickinson proposes that the vote for independency must be unanimous, a measure that soon gets approved. Adams quickly calls for a postponement of the vote (which also passes) so that an actual written document can be produced to absolutely explain why independency is sought in the first place. Hancock instructs the reluctant Thomas Jefferson (the exceptional John Bisom) to join the committee to draft the declaration. Jefferson, however, wants nothing more than to go home to his wife Martha (Jessica Bernard).

What transpires is a captivating exchange of well-intentioned ideas and passionate arguments, which normally would all seem like a tedious, mundane thing to watch (my apologies to those who are obsessed with C-SPAN broadcasts). But in this engaging show, every word of dialogue and every lyric sung-everything that one thinks would make for a disastrously uninteresting theater piece-actually works extremely well here. Even though most of the story happens within a single great hall, '1776' never once feels static. Whether or not the show is historically accurate could itself be up for debate, but in this dramatized version of the events that led up to the 4th of July, the eloquent and, at times, heated conversations are so intriguing to watch, that by the time the first act does come to a close, that shockingly long running time the usher warned us about earlier goes almost unnoticed. In fact, one entire scene in the first act goes on for a staggering 20-plus minutes without a single song or musical interlude, as if somehow the show morphed into a straight play, then gets jolted back into a full-fledged musical once the fascinating first set of debates comes to an end. It's worth noting that neither the songs or the acted-out portions ever feel intrusive to each other.

Under the direction of Nick DeGruccio, MTW's stunning '1776' embodies everything that makes live theater so exciting and important. Now, there isn't anything too remarkably groundbreaking here; however, the show does have this rich, palpable energy that draws the audience in and immerses us wholeheartedly in this important era. We are enraptured witnesses in all the drama, like flies on the wall of an unbearably hot Philadelphia summer. Perhaps the curiosity of witnessing real-life historical events unfold before us is the real draw. Or maybe it's the connection we establish with the fascinating, fully-developed characters on stage-seeing the fragile nature of humanity play out, hence displaying what drives our own desires.

Despite the missing presence of flying witches, hovering helicopters or falling chandeliers, '1776' engages its live audience not only with a well-written, thought-provoking script but also with extraordinary singing and acting from its marvelous collection of fine actors. Each role is so well-cast, that its safe to say that this production boasts one of the most phenomenal ensemble casts MTW has ever assembled. Not only are they all powerhouse singers, their stellar acting performances are moving, powerful, and in many instances, worthy of thunderous applause. As Adams, Glaudini (MTW's own resident Artistic Director) is amazing in the role, both as a singer and actor (he was awarded a Best Actor Ovation Award for this very same role in 2004). Vinovich's wise-but-spunky portrayal of gout-stricken Benjamin Franklin is also quite extraordinary. Bisom, meanwhile, gives his Thomas Jefferson a heartthrob essence, yet vulnerable and confident at the same time.

As the two sole females in the cast, Damiano and Bernard both possess such exquisite voices, providing a welcome softness to the overwhelmingly masculine energy on the stage. Damiano's beautiful duets with Glaudini in particular are sweet bits of respite that remind the audience that Adams wasn't just an intelligent, stubborn mind, he was also a loving, devoted husband. Gaines, arguably the most recognized name in the cast, has a small yet particularly standout moment with his excellent solo work on "The Lees of Old Virginia" that is quite lively. Deliciously argumentative is an apt description for Umberger's distinctive portrayal of head Conservative Dickinson. Shelton is convincingly commanding as John Hancock. And when the entire Congress sings in multi-part harmony, they are nothing short of fantastic.

While every actor is exceptional, there are a few that are noteworthy in the cast:  Gould (as Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island), Robert Towers (as the Congressional custodian), Damon Kirsche (as Dr. Hall, the dashing delegate from Georgia), Michael Kean (as the young courier, who turns in a touching solo at the close of the first act), and the funny Nicholas J. Leinbach (as Col. McKean from Delaware). Lastly, arguably the show's most distinguishing performance comes from Robert J. Townsend as Edward Rutledge, the proper, Southern gentleman representing South Carolina. His skillful, distinctive acting performance-punctuated by a slow, Yankee-lacerating drawl-is so impressive that its impossible to ignore him. By the time he belts out his second act showstopper "Molasses to Rum," the audience couldn't stop cheering. The thunderous applause literally stopped the show.

Overall, Musical Theatre West's truly impressive '1776' turns out to be one engaging, eye-opening history lesson. Thus, the Carpenter Performing Arts Center's stage has become-at least until performances of the show end on July 25-one extremely exciting classroom.

Score: 9.5 / 10

Photos from 1776 by Ken Jacques.
From Top to Bottom: Steve Vinovich, John Bisom, & Steven Glaudini;
Tami Tappan Damiano & Steven Glaudini; Robert J. Townsend; Davis Gaines.

-----

Musical Theatre West's production of '1776' is directed by Ovation Award-winning director Nick DeGruccio with musical direction by Matthew Smedal, The cast stars Steven Glaudini (John Adams), Steve Vinovich* (Benjamin Franklin), John Bisom* (Thomas Jefferson), Davis Gaines* (Richard Henry Lee), Andy Umberger* (John Dickinson), Tami Tappan Damiano* (AbiGail Adams), and Robert J. Townsend* (Edward Rutledge). Also featured in the cast are Tom Shelton*, Todd Nielsen*, Jessica Bernard, Richard Gould*, Damon Kirsche*, Robert Towers*, Michael Kean, Tony Teofilo, Jack Messenger, Chris D. Thomas, Daniel Thomas, Bradley Miller, Jon Powell, James May, Jason Webb, John Richard Petersen, Nicholas J. Leinbach, Brad Fitzgerald, and Blake Sterling.

*Denotes member of Actors Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

Musical Theatre West is the proud resident musical theatre company at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach. Tickets for 1776 range from $30-$80 and can be purchased through the MTW Box Office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or online at www.musical.org.

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From This Author - Michael L. Quintos

A So. Cal. Contributing Editor since 2009, Michael Lawrence Quintos is a talented, mild-mannered Designer by day. But as night falls, he regularly performs on various stages everywhere as a Counter... (read more about this author)


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